There has been lots of discussion post budget about the new freedom in DC pensions and whether this is a good thing.
There are broadly 2 camps of people. Those who think the changes are a good thing and those who think they are a disaster.
There’s good reason for this. Even if you trust people to manage their money well, none of us know how long we will live, so how can anyone pay their own pension? Steve Webb suggested people should be informed of how long they might live but a life expectancy is just an average rate. I built the following modeller to show this:
How long will you live?
What’s most important to show is how variable lifetimes are and how great a chance there is of living much longer than average. In fact by definition you have a 50% chance of living longer than average and average these days is pretty long!
Despite this though, I’m still in the first camp and think the changes are a good thing. Fundamentally I think it’s reasonable to let people spend their own money as they see fit. For some with little money at retirement this might well mean blowing what little they have in the first couple of years. But faced with poverty for life or a couple of good years followed by very similar poverty for life I know what I’d choose. Those with huge pots already do manage their money in retirement so we don’t need to worry about them. But it’s the people in the middle we do need to think about a bit more.
And with auto-enrolment in place many more will start to find that they have a sizable chunk of money in their pension pot when they get to retirement. That’s not to say it’s enough, but a sizable amount of money all the same. So what are they going to do with it in this new world of freedom and choice?
Annuitise like before
This seems unlikely, particularly at the moment. The fact that current annuity rates look so unattractive is partly why the changes have been made in the first place. Annuity providers were hit with significant share price falls on the budget announcement in the anticipation of a significant change in practice. Annuities are dead said some.
But annuities do still offer something. They are the only way of guaranteeing a pension income. Some may decide that, whilst they don’t want to annuitise their whole pot, using some to guarantee a level of income to cover their basic needs makes sense. The rest can then be invested and drawn down as and when required.
Why do current annuity rates look unattractive?
Many of those criticising the budget changes have been pointing out the benefits of risk pooling that annuities offer. This is a very valid point. Essentially those who live a long time are subsidised by those who don’t. Given none of us know when we will die this is a reasonable way of providing certainty to all. We can’t predict when an individual will die with any certainty but we can predict with some degree of confidence the number dying at each age for a large group of people. The same can be said of other risks in life such as crashing your car, being burgled etc. and it’s the principle of how insurance works.
However, an annuity also comes with some baggage. It can be regarded as not just an insurance product but an investment product as well. The underlying investment return of an annuity is very low, especially on inflation linked annuities, reflecting the low risk assets an insurer must invest in and their solvency and profit margins. As life expectancies are so long now, at typical retirement ages the chance of dying is still so small that this low investment return outweighs the benefits of risk pooling.
Now this isn’t the insurers fault1, the rate is low because insurance regulation requires such low risk assets and solvency margins to ensure certainty. But these low risk assets currently have minimal returns due to low interest rates and, in particular, quantitative easing. But just because it’s not their fault doesn’t make the rates look any more attractive.
The solution to the problem is to annuitise much later, say 80 or 85, when the benefits of risk pooling outweigh the low investment return. Before this you can invest your money and pay yourself an income. If you die before you get to the point of annuitising then whatever funds you have left will be left to your next of kin. Having cash in your control also offers other flexibilities such as being able to use it to help pay for care costs if necessary.
In order to delay annuitisation and not be worse off you need to get a return on your money before you annuitise in line with the underlying investment return and also to cover the “cost of survival”. To understand this cost consider how the chance of making it to 85 changes between 65 and 84. At 84 you only have 1 year left and the chances of making it to 85 are high. However, at 65 there are 20 years in which you might die so the chance is much lower. A payment at 85 is therefore much more expensive if you’re already 84. The “cost of survival” each year is equivalent to your chance of death in that year.
Taking an annuity from Hargreaves Lansdown’s best annuity rates at 1 May 2014 for a single life inflation linked pension at 65 suggests you can get an income of £3,525 a year for £100,000 of capital. Or in other words it costs £28.37 for every £1 a year of starting pension. Using typical mortality tables for males this suggests an underlying real i.e. above inflation investment return of -1.7%. Current long-term inflation estimates are around 3.5% so this means a nominal return of just 1.8%! At 65 the chance of dying is around 0.8%. Therefore if you can earn more than 2.6% on your money after charges you’ll be better off by delaying annuitisation (assuming the same pricing basis). I’ve plotted how this breakeven investment return changes over time:
The return needed to beat the growth in annuity rate
At 65 this it is 2.6%. It rises to 3.7% at 75 and 5% at 80. It then rises fairly quickly to 8% at 85. Given current AA rated long dated corporate bond yields of 4.2%, standing still, or in fact doing better than standing still, doesn’t seem that hard for several years. A 4% return each year would allow you to delay annuitisation until 87 and get the same pension.
This sort of product could easily be provided as a collective to make it easy for individuals. However, there’s something even better in my opinion.
Step forward the deferred annuity
A deferred annuity is one that doesn’t pay you a pension immediately, it is deferred. For example you could purchase a deferred annuity at 65 that paid you a pension from 85, if you get there.
Why is this better than delaying annuitisation? There are 2 key reasons:
1. You get all the risk pooling benefits from 85 when the pension is paid but also get much of the benefit from 65 to 85 as well as the annuity only pays out if you make it to 85.
2. If you know you’re covered from 85, you still can’t predict when you might die but you do know exactly how long your money needs to last you!
Using the same assumptions as above the cost of such an annuity would be around 28% of the immediate annuity cost leaving 72% of your fund under your control to draw as you wish over the first 20 years. This isn’t going to give you life changing amounts of extra cash (you still need to save more for that!) but it keeps you in control of your money for longer without sacrificing on the need for some certainty.
The FT’s Josephine Cumbo wrote an excellent piece on Don Ezra, a pensions investment consultant living in the USA, this week. Don sets out why he has bought a deferred annuity and his strategy for managing his money. It’s well worth a read!
This solution could really work. So come on insurers, let’s start thinking deferred annuities.
1 – Other than those insurers who were no longer active market participants and only wrote annuities at rip off rates relying on lethargy for existing customers to purchase them.